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Three Quick Lessons From The Violin Wunderkind Who Became A Master

"The key is to figure out what you're contributing," Joshua Bell says of playing chamber music. (Courtesy of the artist)

Joshua Bell was once a boy wonder of the violin. Now, at 46, he leads nine young musicians in Masterclass. HBO's 30-minute documentary series pairs young artists with world-renowned mentors such as Placido Domingo, Frank Gehry and Patti LuPone, and gives both the teacher and the students opportunities to learn from each other. During an interview with NPR's Robert Siegel, Bell offers three solid pieces of advice to musicians new and old:

  • "[It's important to understand] your role in playing chamber music."
  • "The key is to figure out what you're contributing. If it's rhythm, then you don't want to drown everyone out. You want people to understand the rhythmic basis."
  • "To play with great energy and great character within [the soft dynamic] piano is something that one needs to learn how to do."

Joshua Bell's episode of Masterclass airs Oct. 14 on HBO.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Over the years, violinist Joshua Bell has been on this and other NPR programs any number of times. A quarter of a century ago, he was a boy wonder. So it's striking to have him back now in a current role at age 46 as the master in an upcoming HBO special in which he leads a master class for younger musicians. "Masterclass With Joshua Bell" is a 30-minute documentary that follows Bell as he works with nine young alums of the National Young Arts Foundation. They rehearse, they discuss, they travel and they perform.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MASTERCLASS")

JOSHUA BELL: Now, I'm going to give you a cue, but you have to lead as much as me. So if you...

(MUSIC)

BELL: So really breathe with me. Breathe together - you really feel his breath.

(MUSIC)

SIEGEL: Joshua Bell says he too finds it surprising to be cast in the role of master when he still feels like a student, he says. But over the course of the TV program, he manages to impart some individualized musical advice to each of the talented young musicians he works with.

BELL: There's not one piece of wisdom that works for everyone. If I want to think of something general, it's really trying to find themselves in the music and how they relate to the music in a very honest way. And I think these kids - they grow up listening to a lot of recordings and hearing a lot of instruction from various people, and they don't know who to copy and all this - and really getting them in touch with how they feel and something very personal to put into the music 'cause that's what they have to offer that's different from anyone else.

SIEGEL: There's a great moment when you're rehearsing the Mendelssohn Octet when you - the technique you use is when it's your turn to play the key melody, stand up.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MASTERCLASS")

BELL: This might be silly, but after 2:40, every time we have that (singing) dee-dah-dee-dee, let's stand up.

(MUSIC)

SIEGEL: And you stand up in sequence - you and the two other violinists.

BELL: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: It must be a very different feeling when you're playing to suddenly rise from the chair.

BELL: Well, that was - that sort of came to me while we were rehearsing the octet because the octet is this genius piece written by a young person, Mendelssohn. He was 16 when he wrote it, which is mind-boggling 'cause it really is - it's one of my top five pieces of music ever written. But it's parts all playing at the same time, and one of the actually important lessons I was trying to teach them is that - is really understanding your role in playing chamber music. In general, in playing music, you're always playing with other people. It's a lesson that I think a lot of young people need to learn - is what their role is in the piece that they're playing.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MASTERCLASS")

BELL: Let's find out what is important here.

(LAUGHTER)

BELL: This is not a democracy. Some people are more important than others. We want to hear the (singing) dah-dah-dah-dah. This is trading off, like, (singing) dah-dah-dah-dah-dah. This is changing. We also have the (singing) dee-dah-dee-dee-dun-dun. That's a very important melody.

SIEGEL: There's a wonderful exchange in that scene when I think you're talking - it's to the cellist who's really, I guess he's the rhythm section here, really, in this Mendelssohn piece. And you're trying to get him to put a little bit more into his performance, even though we think of him as being in the background.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MASTERCLASS")

BELL: Now, when you - you're being very - very nice to - you're allowing me to come out on my solo. But all of these things, these little interjections - (singing) dah-dah-dah-dah-dum - even though they're not that loud, just 'cause it's softer doesn't mean you can't have just as much character as when it's loud. So - (singing) dah-bah-dah-bah-bum - I want to feel that energy, that you're not just accompanying me there. How about right at (singing) dee?

(MUSIC)

SIEGEL: He should put a little bit more of himself into it. And I was wondering how string players do that. When you're playing with an ensemble - let's say it's even in a concerto - do you want the string players to play like Ray Charles or to play like the Raelettes instead?

BELL: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: They're kind of, you know, they're backup.

BELL: Well, the key is to figure out what you're contributing. And if it's rhythm, then you don't want to drown everyone out. But you want people to understand the rhythmic basis. So with a cello, it's articulation. So how are you infusing energy without covering everyone? And that was one of the lessons I was trying to teach them because sometimes they see a piano - which means, you know, soft - written in their parts. And they suddenly play very soft, and they're trying to stay out of the way. But sometimes to play with great energy and great character within piano is something that one needs to learn how to do.

SIEGEL: You mention to the young musicians the experience of taking Suzuki and learning violin in that way and how to get away from, I guess, the kind of rhythmic sawing technique that kids are taught.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MASTERCLASS")

BELL: You know, and the same thing here, that kind of - the way we grew up with it like that. And I want much more energy, a little bit quicker and vitality. So let's get that right from the bat.

(MUSIC)

SIEGEL: And I was curious, is there an approach to violin that now, you know, a few decades of Suzuki as this global introduction to violin has created and that you - habits that you expect to find in young violinists?

BELL: Well, you know, Suzuki is a wonderful thing, getting all these kids to play together and all at the same time. It gets them interested in the music. I guess there's - the downside of that is that it's making everyone play exactly the same and in a way that may be not very musical. And so getting away from the way we grew up if we studied Suzuki - there are certain pieces in the repertoire, like the Bach double violin concerto. It's such a beautiful piece. We have this - a lot of us violinists have this memory of playing it in Suzuki class. And it's so banal, and so...

SIEGEL: (Singing) Dah-dah-dah-dah...

BELL: (Singing) Dah-dah-dah-dah-dah - like the military, when it's actually dance.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

BELL: Bach is all about dance and grace and so many things that we - those are not words that are taught so much to Suzuki kids. But I have nothing against Suzuki. But, you know, it's even some of the great pieces like Mendelssohn Concerto. It's usually the first violin concerto we all learn when we're 11 or 12. And unfortunately, that makes us all remember the piece un-fondly because we remember it as a student piece. We have to remind ourselves that this is one of the most beautiful things ever written.

SIEGEL: This is the problem with those book that we - they're so great that we get to read them when we're 13.

BELL: Absolutely. It's the same idea.

SIEGEL: And they were written for adults. They were written for grown-ups.

BELL: Exactly. We have to reread them. Just don't just say, oh, I read that - because I read it in, you know, read it in English class in eighth grade. You have to go back and look at it again.

SIEGEL: Joshua Bell, thank very much for talking with us.

BELL: Thanks.

SIEGEL: Part of HBO's "Masterclass" with Joshua Bell takes place in London. The young musicians get to perform there and they get to watch Bell recording in the studio with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. He's in his third season as director of that chamber orchestra. The results of the recording session are on a CD, "The Bach Violin Concertos." The CD is coming out this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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